What Makes a Better Chicken

By Ben Hewitt, "A Better Chicken," March/April 2010

One writer makes a case for abandoning mass-produced packaged poultry.

They come in a box, through the mail, which never ceases to amaze me. Baby chickens? In the mail? I can hear them the moment I walk into the post office in our small Vermont town, my two boys in tow. Cheepcheepcheepcheepcheep. I always open the box at the post office, partly to see how they’re doing, partly because the boys can’t wait. “Can we see them? Can we see them?”

For the past 10 years, my wife and I have raised chickens on the sloping pastures of our 40-acre farm. We shelter them under portable hoop houses we built from salvaged lumber and old tarps, and we move the houses daily. Chickens are not the most emotive critters in the world, but every time we move them onto fresh grass, it always looks to me like they’re smiling.

Admittedly, this is not the easiest way to put chicken on the table, and it puts us at odds with current trends in chicken ­consumption. “What people are looking for these days is convenience,” says Richard Lobb, spokesperson for the National Chicken Council. “The retail growth is in the ready-to-heat-and-eat type products.”

My family doesn’t purchase ready-to-eat chicken products, but in one sense, we’re in agreement with the average American chicken consumer: we’re eating a lot more than we used to. In fact, per capita chicken consumption hit an all-time high in 2006, at 87.7 pounds (2007, the most recent year complete records are available, was slightly lower, at 86.4). That’s about 11⁄2 pounds per week—more than double the amount of chicken that graced American plates as recently as 1977.

Despite Lobb’s assertion that consumers are seeking convenience, more and more chicken is being raised like we raise ours, in small batches, on pasture. (There is no official definition for “pastured” poultry, but it’s generally understood that, while birds raised in this manner still receive grain, they are ­allowed unfettered access to fresh pasture.)

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